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Why Chicago Chose Linux

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As the platform architect for the city of Chicago, Amy Niersbach had a decision to make. The city’s IT infrastructure needed some refreshing. Chicago wanted to rid itself of its vintage mainframes, and its aging Sun Solaris servers were costly to maintain.

The Windy City needed a major migration. But to what?

An obvious choice would have been the Windows server, partially because the city’s infrastructure – which includes “a little bit of everything,” Niersbach says – already uses a major Windows element.

But she opted to avoid Windows. “When you think of Windows server, you think of rebooting the server, of always having to apply security patches. You think of viruses,” she tells Datamation. “Not that it’s not great for some things, but Linux and Solaris prove to be a lot less headaches than any other platform.”

With her preference for Linux, she went shopping. “We evaluated Suse Linux. They were a good runner-up, but at the time they didn’t have the Oracle certification.” Since the city relies so heavily on Oracle, this was a deal breaker.

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Chicago buys a lot of servers from HP, so Niersbach began a conversation with HP’s Red Hat team. “We were just really curious about Red Hat. It was very intriguing to ask: ‘What customers are actually using it?’”

HP gave Chicago some pilot hardware to use. “We got to keep it for three or four months – they weren’t rushed about it. We did a couple of pilots and we were pretty excited about the results.”

At the end of October, after implementing Red Hat to run some vital city programs, Chicago made an announcement: it had successfully migrated to Red Hat, saving money in the process.

What’s your take?
Discuss Chicago’s Linux decision in the IT Forum.

Faster Transactions

The first program powered by Red Hat was the city’s online motor vehicle registration renewal system, City Stickers. Along with Red Hat, the program is run by an Oracle 9i Real Application Cluster (RAC), Oracle 10g RAC database servers, and a BEA WebLogic server.

City Stickers now runs far faster than it did on the Solaris platform. Solaris clocked in at 50,268 transactions per minute while the HP–Red Hat system sails along at over 149,500 transactions per minute. And when running the city’s long batch cycles, Red Hat moves 50 percent faster, according to the city’s tally.

And it’s cheaper, too, Niersbach says. “When you replace end of life Sun Solaris servers, you save a ton of money on hardware. Your maintenance costs are dramatically lower. And your licensing costs, too.

“So sometimes when you get rid of the Solaris servers you have these old 400 MHz processors and you may have 12 of them. The new system with the Intel processors will be faster, so you’ll require less [processors], so your Oracle licensing will be cheaper in many cases. And the Oracle licensing can cost a ton,” she says. “That can be like $25,000 to $30,000 per CPU. So that costs more than everything altogether.”

As an added benefit, “You save a lot of computer room space, too. It’s a much smaller system.”

At this point the city has about 60 servers running Red Hat. “Some are migrations, and a lot are new projects,” Niersbach says. “Like on our WebLogic platform, we have an SOA bus that we use that’s all Red Hat.”

The SOA bus allows the city to integrate information from all their systems – particularly important because many city agencies share data. “Instead of writing interfaces directly to one particular server, you can have a bus where they can get the information.”

Next page: Using Oracle Support for Red Hat?

Migration Requires Homework

Though it’s moving to Red Hat, Chicago hasn’t abandoned Sun. “I still have a few systems that aren’t ready for Red Hat,” Niersbach says. “One of them is Oracle Financials, which is made up of probably six or seven Solaris servers.” Sun also powers Chicago’s customer service request (CSR) system, which routes work orders to numerous city agencies.

A decision to migrate to a new platform requires plenty of homework, she says, noting that many apps have to be looked at on a
case-by-case basis: “Will they support Red Hat?” Also, managers must weigh factors like what file system they’ll be using – for example, that of Veritas or Oracle.

A migration decision is like playing three-dimensional chess, in which a plethora of interlocking variables – vendors, hardware, software – must be considered.

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“Because every time you make a change to the environment you have to think how easy or how complicated you’re going to make it.”

One big question: is a given product going to be supported for a lengthy period?

“Oracle threw us another surprise recently when they said that they’re only going to support their 9i release 2 for so long. If you don’t upgrade by a certain date, then they’re going to penalize you for that,” she says. “So those kind of issues make it difficult for everyday users like us.”

Amid all the factors, an especially vital one is certification, Niersbach says. Is the application certified at the level you need it to be on the hardware you’re using?

Oracle Support?

Looking ahead, Niersbach expects to do more with virtualization. “We’d like to reduce the number of servers. Because a lot of companies, they may have 3-400 servers, but the CPU utilization is usually very low. The way to reduce that and maximize that uses virtualization. So we’re looking in to that.”

At this point Chicago is contracting with Red Hat for its Linux support. But Oracle recently announced it was offering low cost Linux support. Would Niersbach consider that?

“I don’t know yet,” she says. “I think I’d have to be a little open-minded about it, find out more information. I’d have to find out the pricing.” But, she notes with a laugh, “I pay Oracle enough money a year.”

In the mean time, she has her hands full. “There’s a lot more proof of concepts that we have to do. We’ve grown significantly and I see us migrating to still more Red Hat. There are so many projects – it’s about trying to make time for them all.”

What’s your take?
Discuss Chicago’s Linux decision in the IT Forum.

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